The First Watergate Law of American Politics states: "No matter how paranoid or conspiracy-minded you are, what the government is actually doing is worse than you imagine."
The Second Watergate Law of American Politics states: "Don't believe anything until it's been officially denied."
Both laws are still on the books.
Blum’s dictums are as accurate and necessary for understanding corporate power as they are political power. With that in mind, dear reader, let us proceed to consider the likelihood of various Silicon Valley corporations’ denials that they are involved in the mysterious National Security Agency PRISM program.
First, some brief background. Journalist (or, according to the New York Times, “blogger”) Glenn Greenwald has been breaking a series of exclusive stories about the nature of the NSA’s top secret programs in the past week. First, he broke the news that a Verizon, at the behest of the Obama administration via a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order, had been forking over the metadata of millions of subscribers’ phone calls to the NSA. Next, he disclosed the existence of the PRISM project, a secret collaboration between various Silicon Valley corporations and the NSA to analyze user data stored on the companies’ systems. After that, he published about Obama’s order to draw up a list of foreign targets for cyber attack and about another NSA tracking program, Boundless Informant.
Here I want to focus on the PRISM revelation only. The reaction of the leaders of the corporations with whom the NSA had been allegedly collaborating was shock, outrage and denial. Google CEO Larry Page co-authored a blog post with Google’s top lawyer entitled “What the...?” in which the authors claimed that “Any suggestion that Google is disclosing information about our users’ Internet activity on such a scale is completely false.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg followed suit with a response to what he called the “outrageous press reports” that read very similarly to Page’s. Indeed, according to the Guardian, the newspaper which Greenwald writes for, “All the companies involved have now denied knowledge of [PRISM].”
Naturally, these carefully-written denials don’t directly address all the alleged issues and are open to wide interpretation. Most notably, the companies deny the NSA having “direct access” to their servers, which begs the question of what “direct access” is, exactly, and doesn’t preclude the possibility of indirect access.
So the NSA can’t both be collaborating and not collaborating with the companies. Someone is in the wrong, either Glenn Greenwald or the Silicon Valley corporations.
Unfortunately for Facebook and Google, et al, evidence seems to be mounting on the side of their collaboration with the NSA. According to the Washington Post, “Executives at some of the participating companies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged [PRISM]’s existence and said it was used to share information about foreign customers with the NSA and other parts of the nation’s intelligence community.” Furthermore, the Guardian has published additional evidence about PRISM and several other news sources corroborate Greenwald’s original accusations. Greenwald doesn’t appear to be finished, either, hinting that more incriminating stories are yet to be published.
It seems pretty clear, and I believe the evidence will bear this out as time goes on, that Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and the rest of the Silicon Valley titans are lying. There are, of course, less likely alternate possibilities: that the executives are so misinformed that they don’t know what is going on at their own companies, for instance. But I agree with security expert Bruce Schneier when he says: "I was assuming that these tech companies were just lying... That's the most obvious explanation."
George Packer recently wrote a piece -- “Change the World” -- in the New Yorker about Silicon Valley, partially addressing its corporations’ increasing involvement in politics. Towards the end, he observes, “If Silicon Valley’s idea of itself as a force for irresistible progress is running up against the unlovely reality of current American politics, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” In the context of industry collaboration with secretive government surveillance programs, one might add, “And long overdue.” Although Packer clearly didn’t have the presently breaking scandals in mind, it’s clear that the power of these companies to engage in such nefarious and possibly illegal activity should be reined in, as quickly and as strongly as possible.